Late nationalism

Germany is sometimes thought of as a verspätete Nation, or “belated nation”, in other words one that became a nation state much later than comparable European countries like Britain and France. The term, which comes from Helmuth Plessner’s 1935 book of the same name, is closely connected to the idea of a German Sonderweg, or “special path”. But isn’t the ultimate “belated nation” – albeit in a slightly different sense – Israel? Of course, Israel is in the Middle East, not Europe. But although it was realized in the Middle East in the twentieth century, Zionism came out of nineteenth-century Europe: it was conceived by assimilated Jews like Theodor Herzl as a response to European anti-Semitism and was also influenced by European and particularly German nationalism. Israel is thus of Europe even though it is not in Europe – one of the paradoxes of Zionism.

The concept of the “belated nation” was originally intended to explain the failure of democracy and liberalism and the rise of  Nazism in Germany. Obviously, Israel is a very different case in that respect. However, the concept may be applicable simply in the sense that, if we think of Zionism as a European nationalist project as I am suggesting, the Jewish state that Herzl dreamed of came late. After all, Israel only came into existence in 1948 – so much later even than Germany, in fact, that one might even call it a “hyper-belated nation”. Thus whereas Germany was unified during the colonial era (in fact, at its climax), Israel came into existence at the beginning of the post-colonial era. But although Israel finally became a nation state around the same time that many other former colonies became independent (a year after Indian independence, for example), and did so in the context of  decolonization, it was created largely by Europeans who were perceived (and continue to be perceived) by the Arabs as colonial settlers.

It seems to me that thinking of Israel in this way (I’m not sure, by the way, how original it is) also helps in thinking through some of the difficult issues around Israel and its relationship with the region surrounding it today. For example, those on the right who dismiss critics of Israel as anti-Semitic often seem not to recognize that the Jewish state is different from other western nation states: whereas western European states once defined themselves on the basis of race or religion but no longer do (and the United States, incidentally, never did), Israel still does (and, realistically, has to). But at the same time, some left-wing critics of Israel – the most extreme of whom regard Israel as an inherently “racist” state – seem to simply equate Zionism with colonialism (hence the comparisons with apartheid in South Africa): it is as if the long history of European anti-Semitism that culminated in the Holocaust is irrelevant to the story of the creation of Israel.

I have been thinking about this partly because I recently read the thought-provoking lecture that Edward Said delivered at the Freud Museum in London shortly before his death in 2003 (later published as Freud and the non-European). In the process of discussing Freud’s own conflicted relationship with Judaism, Said celebrates Isaac Deutscher’s concept of the “non-Jewish Jew” – the cosmopolitan disaporic identity exemplified by Jewish intellectuals like Spinoza, Heine, Marx and Freud who, according to Deutscher, were free of nationalism of any kind – as an alternative to Zionism but also a model for non-Jews. (This seems to me to be much like the idea of “rootless cosmopolitanism” that I blogged about recently. Interestingly, however, that term came into existence only after the creation of the state of Israel.) Deutscher argued that the Jews finally got their nation state at exactly the moment that the nation state was becoming obsolete – and in doing so perpetuated rather than overcame anti-Semitism as Herzl had originally hoped. Thus, Deutscher says, Israel is not just an anachronism but “the paradoxical consummation of the Jewish tragedy”.

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One thought on “Late nationalism

  1. Pingback: Real and imaginary new Jews « Hans Kundnani

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